Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, Katja Hoyer

Book review

By Katja Hoyer; reviewed by Michael Arnold, published 7th September 2021

Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918, Katja Hoyer, The History Press, 2021, 253 pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-7509-9622-8 

This admirably concise book gives due weight to the whole of the period from 1871 to 1918 rather than glossing over the years between the Bismarck Chancellorship and the events immediately preceding the First World War. It is that intervening period which is particularly well described and assessed. 

By 1890 the age difference of 43 years between Bismarck and the new Kaiser and the friction created by their different temperaments became too much for the headstrong Wilhelm II to bear. That there  was no obvious successor suited Wilhelm who saw himself as “a neo-absolutist Kaiser of all Germans. In his vision of himself as a reincarnation of the mythical Frederick Barbarossa… there was no room for chancellors, ministers and political realities”. 

Bismarck’s replacement, Leo von Caprivi, was told at the outset by Wilhelm that he did not see a future for the office of chancellor. Next came Hohenlohe, a relative of Wilhelm, who had sought to avoid appointment on the grounds of old age, mental and physical lack of vigour and weak public speaking skills. Two years later, Hohenlohe agreed with von Bülow that the latter would  take charge behind the scenes. In the meantime, Eulenburg, a close friend of the Kaiser, became the person with the most influence over Wilhelm, flattering him and reinforcing his perception that “the will of the king is the highest law.” When a series of scandals in 1907 and 1908 seriously damaged Wilhelm’s authority and prestige, he became dependent on the military hawks who believed that European war was inevitable. Bismarck’s legacy of prudence was lost. 

With a short introductory section on the period from 1815 to 1871 also included, this book is a fine example of a good historian’s ability to describe and analyse complex themes in an accessible manner.